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The NEON (Network of European Observatories in the North) astronomical observing school

Final Activity Report Summary - The NEON SCHOOL (The NEON (Network of European Observatories in the North) astronomical observing school)

This project aimed at organising training schools in astronomical observations and data reductions, either directly at the telescope in professional, active observatories, with fresh data to be collected, or by using data extracted from the archives and processing them in some leading institutions. The participants, essentially young researchers doing a PhD in astronomy, worked in small groups (typically four) under the direct supervision of an experienced astronomer (the tutor), and conducted a small research project, given by the tutor, covering all phases of a standard observing program: preparation of the observations, choice of instrumental set-up, observations themselves, then followed by the data reduction. When using archival data, the preparation consisted in selecting the appropriate data bases, and evaluating the quality of the existing data, before retrieving the needed part. In both cases (direct observations, or archival school), emphasis was put on using a multi-wavelength approach, which therefore required the use of data from several origins, usually combining ground-based and space-based observations.

At the end of the school, of duration 10 to 13 days (and nights!), all the participants had to present the scientific results obtained during their campaign.

Among the six initially planned schools, four were conducted at the telescope in the observatories composing the Network of European Observatories in the North: Calar-Alto observatory in Spain, Haute-Provence observatory in France, Asiago observatory in Italy, and LaPalma observatory in the Canarian islands in Spain. Two archive schools we conducted at the Munich headquarters of the European Southern Observatory, another NEON partner. A supplementary school was organised around the use of data from Integral Field Unit spectrographs (IFU's), a complex, new type of instrument now appearing in all major observatories, and which requires complex and specific data reduction procedures difficult to learn alone: this workshop was organised in Potsdam where one of the leading institutes in the field is located. In all cases, the tools provided by the Virtual Observatories were essential.

In each school, 16 to 20 students gathered from over 10 different countries each time, with good gender balance, together with their tutors, and over a dozen lecturers.

They learned the basics of telescope optics, photometry, spectroscopy, polarimetry, and of course data reductions. Complementary lectures covered detectors, adaptive optics, interferometry, future large scale facilities like the E-ELT, etc... all topics needed for a successful observing with the largest telescopes in the world.

In addition to the training itself, all the schools provided excellent opportunities to learn about the astronomical facilities offered all over Europe and to plant the seeds for further, trans-national collaborations. These schools fill a fundamental training need, at an epoch where most of the large facilities are only remotely accessible.